Religious Movements in

Medieval India


It is a view generally held that the period between the 12th and the 17th centuries was a period of intellectual darkness in India. It is widely assumed that with the Mohammedan conquest of Northern India, Hinduism ceased to be a living force and the Hindu mind, under the humiliation of political subjection, lost its vitality. Most European historians have depicted to us the middle ages in India as a dreary expanse of Intellectual barrenness unrelieved either by Intellectual or artistic efforts. With the Mohammedan conquest, the spirit of Ancient India which produced poets, thinkers and prophets is supposed to have vanished, leaving nothing but the memory of past achievements and an ancient civilization.

Politically, no doubt, this picture of a dark age is to some extent true. The political history of Northern India, from the invasion of the Mohammedans in the 12th century to the establishment of the Moghul Empire in the middle of the 16th century, is nothing but a chaotic record of anarchy. But the intellectual life of India during this period developed in every direction and to such a degree that it can be said to have laid the foundations of modern Indian life. The modern notion that the middle ages in India formed an intellectual hiatus–a chapter of mean achievement and meaner ideals–which had no connection with the present–day life, is demonstrably untrue. Life in India has been continuous and if the Hindu of today derives his inspiration from the Vedas, the Upanishads and the epics, it is to a very large extent through the works and teachings of the medieval writers. The spirit of Ancient Indian humanism descends to modern India mainly through the saints and prophets of the period between the 12th and the 16th centuries.

In fact, the more closely we analyse, the more clearly we will see that, in every aspect of modern Indian life, the dominating spirit is that of the thinkers and poets of the middle ages. The vernacular literatures through which the life of India now flows took their present shape at that period. The main divisions of Hinduism, the Vaishnavas, the Saivasiddhantis, the Sikhs and the numerous sects in which the millions of India find their spiritual solace, came into existence at this period. The two main legal systems under which the Hindus live even today were worked out during the same period. The fact is that the contact with the stern monotheism and the youthful vigour of Islam produced among the Hindus a renaissance which, in its varied manifestations, still dominates the life of India. From Kashmir to Cape Comorin an intellectual wave swept over India remoulding its religious life, transforming its fundamental ideas, creating new social institutions, changing, in fact, the whole temper and outlook of the mind. The main characteristics of this period which we propose to analyse here are the religious and philosophical revival, the growth of the great vernacular literatures through which these ideas expressed themselves, and the remarkable attempts at a national synthesis made over and over again.

By the end of the 9th century, the Advaita system of philosophy had practically become the leading school of Indian thought. Sankara who lived in the 9th century is justly considered one of the greatest of Indian thinkers and, due to his influence, his system of absolute monism came to be accepted practically throughout the length and breadth of India. But from the very nature of this doctrine it could never become the basis of a popular religion and though the Advaita Vedanta continues to this day to hold its premier position as the accepted philosophy of the Hindu household, its relation to religious life was never very great. The revolt against the rigidity of absolutism of Sankara begins early during this period. It is in the Tamil country that the new religious movement found its origin. Far many centuries previous to this period, the Tamil people had developed an extraordinary spiritual life which found expression in a devotional literature of unsurpassed beauty and intensity. Of its great literary beauty we shall speak later. They had already been collected into the Tiramurai or the sacred scriptures grouped in eleven books in the time of Rama Raja, the Great. But it contained no set of doctrines, being merely the expression of personal spiritual experience and exalted devotional moods. The 13th and 14th centuries marked a great change from this. It witnessed a wonderful efflorescence of Tamil thought. Under Meykhanda Deva, who was a Sudra Sanyasin, the nebulous ideas of the early devotional poets became organised into a systematic set of doctrines which came to be known as the Saiva Siddhanta. A succession of talented disciples continued his work. It is a singularly interesting and highly significant fact pointing to the cultural unity of India that the Saiva school in the South should be closely allied to the Saivas of Kashmir, whose chief philosophical intrepreter was Samadeva, the author of Siva Drishti. The Kashmiri movement produced some profound thinkers like Kshema Raja who had considerable influence in the South.

Besides this Saivite development there was in South India at that time a devotional school of Vaishnavism whose saints were known as Alvars. Traditionally there were 12 Alvars and after them came the orthodox succession of patriarchs of whom Nathamuni and Alvandar were the most important. Alvandar was the Vaishnava patriarch at Srirangam and Ramanuja was a great-grandson of his. An interesting thing about Ramanuja is that he was educated in the tradition of Sankara, the great Saivite philosopher, and thus in him both the Vaishnavite and the Saivite currents were united, Ramanuja in course of time succeeded to the Vaishnavite pontifical seat at Srirangam succeeding Yamunacharya. It is not too much to say that his ministry there is one of the most important facts in Indian history. He changed the face of Hinduism in the South of India and gave it a new set of doctrines and a new social organization. His doctrines, as we shall show, influenced the whole course of religious development in Northern India. From a devotional sect the Sri Vaishnavas were transformed into a new religion which was directly connected with the Vedas and the Upanishads through the great commentary, the Sri Bhashya which Ramanuja wrote. His philosophical doctrine may best be described as a qualified monism. He held, in opposition to Sankara, that though God alone exists and the rest are but His manifestations, for that reason the manifestations are not in themselves unreal. From the religious as opposed to the metaphysical point of view, the main difference between Sankara and Ramanuja lay in their conception of Bhakti or devotion. It is in Ramanuja’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita that we come across the elaboration of the theory of Bhakti which in the course of the next three centuries was destined to become the leading doctrine of Indian religion. "In the same manner as my servant cannot live without me–his highest goal–so I cannot live without him, verily therefore is he my very self." So says Krishna, in the Gita. It is this idea which Ramanuja emphasises and which becomes the main doctrine of the Bhakti school.

In the period between the death of Ramanuja and the growth of the Bhakti school under Ramananda in the North, a large number of reformers arose in different parts of India, preaching in divergent forms and under different metaphysical coverings, the same gospel of direct communion with a personal God. Madhwacharya in Udipi, Nimbarka in the Telugu country, Chakradhar and Nagadevabhatta in Western India, and many others rose to preach the necessity of a living religion. Everywhere there was an unprecedented intellectual ferment–going on at a time when the Muslims had firmly established themselves in Northern India and were carrying sword and fire over the length and breadth of the country. It is characteristic of India that her great religious movements should have taken place at a time when her whole political structure was crumbling to pieces by the rude contact with the Pathan invasions. It was when the Mohammedan Sultanates were firmly established at Delhi and extended their sway over the whole of the Gangetic Valley that the great wave of religious revival broke over Northern India.

The main figure of this revival in Northern India is Ramananda. His exact date cannot be fixed, but it is well established that he lived in the 14th century. Ramananda was a Vaishnava Brahmin from the South and a follower of Ramanuja, who like all religious men in India before and after him wandered from place to place, partly on pilgrimage, partly for religious disputation, finally reaching Benares as the chief centre for both. There Ramananda settled down, and giving up Sanskrit began to teach in the vernacular. He received disciples from all castes and set up what may be called a Free Church accepting neither orthodox theology nor orthodox social organisation. His main religious principle was an intense faith in a personal God–whom he called Rama–and personal devotion to Him. He did not accept caste and among his chief disciples was a Mohammedan weaver–the most beloved of modern Hindu saints, Kabir. Let no one ask a man his caste or sect, said Ramananda, whoever adores God is God’s own. It was through Ramananda that the Bhakti doctrine of Ramanuja spread in the Gangetic Valley. The Ramanandis or the sect which accepts him as the master is numerically very small, but Ramananda’s influence is still very great in the religious life of Northern India, as he was the guru and master of Kabir and Tulsidas, the great author of Ramacharita Manas, which is for Northern Hindus,

the scripture, philosophy and literature, all combined into one.

Kabir was a Mohammedan weaver who early in his life came under the influence of Hindu mysticism. Though outside the pale of Hindu society, he became a disciple of Ramananda and spent his days singing the unity of God and the futility of trying to confine Him within the circumscribed limits of sectarian theology. The Hindus and the Mohammedans, he says in one song, have the same Lord. He worshipped God alike under the name of Rama as of Allah. He was the first to see that much of the theological quarrel between Hindus and Muslims was merely a question of names. What matters if God is called Allah or Ram, he asks. He did not believe in idol worship or in any of the forms of ceremonial religion.

"The inner veil of the Temple of Mecca is in a man’s heart, if truth be known," he says. Religion according to him is the life we lead. "Make thy mind thy Kaaba, thy body its enclosing temple."

Though in his strict arid unbending monotheism and in his disbelief in idolatry, Kabir held the Mohammedan point of view, the general background of his religion as well as his essential ideas were Hindu. He was, beyond everything else, a Bhakta, a mystic who believed in personal communion with God. "As the river enters the ocean, so my heart touches thee," he says. His simple theology is based on Hindu ideas of karma and transmigration.

Kabir’s influence on Hindu thought is remarkable. Unlike Ramanuja, Madhawa or Ramananda, he was a poor unlettered weaver. He had neither the religious sanctity attached to great Pandits or philosophers to give him a privileged position with the people. Nor was he a scholar or a philosopher to be able to found a new school, or to preach a new set of dogmas. His influence was entirely due to his wonderful poetic expression of spiritual experience and his direct appeal to the heart of the poor people. His message was not for the scholars trained to revel in metaphysical discussions, or for priests and nobles. He taught the simple truth that God is for all, for the rich and the poor, for the Brahmin and the outcaste, for the Hindu and the Mohammedan. He taught that all alike can attain grace by devotion to Him and by good works. "The Kingdom of God is within you," is what he says. "The Mecca that you search for is in your heart." Even now there is in India a small sect who call themselves Kabir Panthis or the followers of the way of Kabir. But Kabir’s influence in Indian life is not to be judged by the number of his followers. His was the first

voice raised against the theological disputation of Hindus and Mohammedans. He was the first to show the noble way for a national ideal. In the life and work of every-day India, Kabir is still one of the few living personalities, alike by the beauty of his sayings as by the greatness of his teachings.

A religious figure of equal importance was Nanak the founder of the Sikh religion. Nanak was a Hindu from the Punjab who realised early enough the futilities of a purely ceremonial-ridden religion. He was greatly influenced by Kabir and believed with him in the unity of God and the communion of all men direct with God without the intervention of a church or a set of dogmas. He preached against idolatry and caste but otherwise accepted the categories of Hindu thought, only excluding rigidly the pantheistic ideas of Brahminical theology. He wandered far and wide and founded a small community into which he admitted Hindus, Muslims, Brahmins and outcastes alike. Nanak himself had no idea of founding a separate sect. He was a Hindu mystic, who like Kabir combined in his teachings some of the doctrines of Islam. He was not however a believer in the religion of Bhakti. For ceremonial observances, pilgrimages, etc. Nanak had no regard. As he himself expresses it:

Religion consisteth not in mere Words

He who looketh on all men as equal is religious.

Religion. consisteth not in wandering to tombs,

Or to places of cremation or sitting in attitudes of contemplation.

Religion consisteth not in wandering in foreign countries or in bathing at places of Pilgrimage,

Abide pure amidst the impurities of the world.

Thus shalt thou find the way to salvation.

Though a mystic, his faith was the simple one which believed that "no one shall be saved except through good works."

By an irony of history, this simple religion of Nanak was in course of time converted into a militant creed of which the central idea was the creation of a community whose ideal was warfare. The religion that Nanak founded is the religion of Sikhism.

The story of Tulsidas is equally interesting. He was born in the province of Agra and was married very early while he was still a child. He was devoted to his wife from whom he could not be parted even for a single day. His wife once went to her father’s house and Tulsi followed her there. Annoyed at this behaviour, his wife turned round on him and said that if he had followed God with the same persistence he would have attained salvation by that time. The words of his angry wife came to him as a revelation and from that time he devoted himself entirely to religious devotion. As a Ramanandi he was a worshipper of Rama, and in singing of Rama’s deeds he found the greatest spiritual solace, He devoted his time to writing the life of Rama in the vernacular. The Pandits were naturally angry that he should have written his great work in the language of the people and not in classical Sanskrit. To them he replied: "Whether it be in vulgar tongue or in Sanskrit, true love for the Lord is what is needed."

The Ramacharita Manas is the great epic of Northern India–the book of daily devotion to all Hindus in Aryavarta. But it is more than that. He has put into the poem all the philosophy of Vaishnava thinkers, the doctrines of the Bhakti school and the spiritual emotionalism of the devotional songs of the Alvars, Ramananda, Kabir, and others. To him Rama was not a mere semi-divine hero. He was God Himself in all His greatness:

Seers and sages, saints and hermits fix on Him their reverend gaze

And in faint trembling accents holy scriptures sing His praise.

He the omnipresent spirit, Lord of heaven, earth and hell,

To redeem His people & freely has vouchsafed with men to dwell.

One other name remains to be mentioned in relation to the Bhakti religion and that is Chaitanya, the prophet of Bengal. Many reasons contributed to make Bengal a particularly fertile soil for the development of this religion. For the emotional aspect of the Bhakti cult, a long line of poets and singers beginning with Chandidas and Vidyapati had prepared the mind of Bengal. On its popular side the tradition of Buddhism with its sankirtans had lingered on, transformed and hardly recognisable but still providing an exceptionally suitable ground. In Chaitanya the emotional worship of Krishna found the highest expression. The very sight of Kadamba trees in bloom, so closely associated with the Krida of Krishna, used to make him feel the presence of God–so intense was the communion of his soul with Krishna. His was a religion based on ecstatic emotion and it made a wonderful appeal to Bengal in the 16th century. It was revivalism of an extraordinary kind and all classes of people followed him. The whole countryside was filled with singing parties and it is this ‘Vaishnava’ inheritance that is still the cultural background of modern Bengal.

The idea of a "Divine Spouse" which produced among Christian mystics such types as Hildegarde and Angela de Flodigno is common to all women mystics. In Mirabai, the queen of Udaipur, it was specially emphasised. She felt herself to be the spouse of Krishna and she felt in her ecstasy His personal presence near her. The intensity of her passion was such that the Hindu world, always prone to accept divinity, has claimed her to be the incarnation of Krishna’s divine consort. For His love she gave up her kingdom. She says with exquisite charm: -

"Kana have I bought; the price he asked I gave,

Some cry it is great, others fear it is small.

I gave in full weighed to the utmost grain.

My love, my life, my sell, my soul, my All."

The spirit of utter self-abnegation and sacrifice which is the characteristic of Bhakti is nowhere better illustrated than in these lines of Mirabai. She died at the feet of the beloved idol of Krishna, offering herself as the spouse of God.

The main characteristics of the religious movements we have noticed may now be analysed. Except in the case of Ramanuja and Madhwa, the religious revival was essentially popular and not scholastic. Both Ramanuja and Madhwa were philosophers who were anxious to connect their new schools with the Vedas and the Upanishads. But the later leaders, especially Ramananda, Kabir, Tulsidas, Nanak and Chaitanya, have no philosophical systems of their own. Theological discussions do not interest them and subtle questions of metaphysics, over which the schools of an earlier day fought and battled, left them cold. They were the interpreters of a new kind of religion, of devotion to God, of faith in Him, of the futility of dogmas and ceremonials. It is this eclecticism that is their main characterstic.

Another matter of extreme significance is the growth of democratic feeling in regard to religion. The older sects, except Buddhism, were exclusive and caste-ridden. Knowledge was considered to be the exclusive privilege of the Brahmins, and religious observance, their special inheritance. But in the new movements of our period, this ceased, to be. Even Ramanuja, though an orthodox Brahmin, was more lax with regard to caste rules, than any previous reformer. Though no evidence could be found for the assertion which is often made that he took even outcastes into his sect, there is clear proof that he did not accept the limitations of earlier teachers with regard to the lower castes. The Northern Indian movements were even more liberal. Ramananda said that no man should be asked his caste. Kabir, though a Mohammedan, became a disciple and his followers were of all castes. Nanak preached vigorously against the system of caste and admitted everyone freely to his sect. Of the Maratha saints, a good many were outcastes and at least one a Mohammedan.

It is clear from these facts that the religious movement allover India from the 11th to the 16th century were not only eclectic in ideas, but to a large extent free from the cramping restrictions of orthodox Brahmanism. They were moved by a vast and generous desire for the salvation of humanity and not merely of castes or classes. In fact, never was there in India such a tremendous upheaval of religious spirit in its true sense, desire for spiritual uplift and widespread longing for the freedom of the human soul, since the days of the Buddha. Apart from the schools and sects that this great movement of mind gave rise to, there was one result which was singularly important, and that was the attempt made over and over again to create a religious synthesis out of the conflicting creeds of Hinduism and Islam. By their nobility of purpose, no less than by their achievements, these attempts stand out as highly significant landmarks in Indian thought.

Another feature is the popular character of these movements. Most of the saints of the Hinduism of this period were men of the people. Their songs were not subtle or metaphysical, and appealed directly to the heart of the people. In fact it is not too much to say that the mind of the Hindu of today bears the imprint of these religious teachers more than even the religious thought of the Vedas or the Upanishads. The songs of Jnaneswar in the Maratha country, the hymns of the Alvars and the Saivite saints in the South, the songs of Kabir, Mirabai, and more than all, the work of Tulsidas, have created the popular religion of India. Even today it is in these that modern India finds its mental nourishment.

Of the influence of Islam on Hinduism and of Hindu thought on Islam, it is not necessary to speak here. No doubt much of the revival of Hinduism in Northern India was due to the contact with Islam and the impetus which the rigorous monotheism of the followers of the Arabian Prophet gave to tale Hindu mind. But apart from influences of that kind, it was inevitable that the co-existence of a powerful body of thought and a rigorous and unbending dogma should give rise to new creeds in which what is best in both systems should be mixed together to form a new synthesis. This is the great value of Kabir’s teachings which were later on followed and elaborated with greater success by Nanak. Kabir thought that Allah and Rama were but two names for the same God, that it was only fools who quarreled over names. The religion of the Sikhs is based on this. It is a strict monotheism, hating the worship of God through idols and holding with Islam that caste is repugnant to religious ideas. But in other respects it is Hindu. Both in Kabir and in Nanak we find that catholicism of spirit and that genuine faith in the universality of religion, through whatever form it may be expressed, which make them perhaps the greatest religious figures in Indian history since Gautama Buddha.

Besides this, there may be noticed what may be called a national tendency in the religious revival in many parts. It is the hymns of Namdev and Tukaram that paved the way for the establishment of the Maratha nation. The Sikh religion became a mystic, if militant, nationalism and everywhere the religious revival became a great factor in the evolution of sub-nationalities in India. If no great national synthesis resulted from this awakening, it was due to the varied and dissonant racial and cultural tendencies in India. In medieval India, though there was a unity of sentiment and unity of institutions, there was not the same chance as there is today of a universal prevalence of ideas working towards the establishment of a national unity. The geographical facts inevitably tended to make all awakenings of this kind local in effect, though national in their bearing.

The ideas behind this vast religious upheaval may well be described as being the faith in a personal God and a belief that God can be known only through experience. The extraordinary crowding of emotions around the personality of the Deity, in whatever form He may be worshipped by the individual teacher, –in the form of Krishna by Chaitanya and Mirabai, Rama by Tulsidas and Ramananda–is a central fact. To them their God was no abstraction of attributes but a living and knowable experience. Together with this went the idea which is the essence of the Bhakti religion that "where faith is, there God is". The whole of the medieval religious movement in India is a commentary on these two texts. The literature it produced, as valuable as that of any period of India not excluding the great age of Kalidasa, is essentially a poetry of direct experience and not of conventional art. There is freshness and vigour a like in the thought and expression of the songs of this movement. Whether it is Tulsidas or Namdev, Kabir or Mirabai, they are singing, not so much to show their scholarship and their wonderful skill with words, as to convey their soul. The great vernaculars of modern India owe their beginning to this movement. Except Tamil, all the great languages which are spoken in India today owe their inspiration to the religious teachers of the middle ages. Tulsidas, Surajdas and Kabir are the founders of Hindi Vidyapati and Chandidas of Bengali. Jnaneswara has been called the Dante of Marathi, and without doubt it is with, him that Marathi took its literary form. If the literary output of the great religious teachers of the middle ages is taken away, there would be very little of higher value left in the vernaculars before the modern time. It is saying a great deal for a movement that its momentum has been such as to produce a literary revolution of this kind over so wide an area.